Awhile ago, a friend of mine asked if I wanted to join their Harry Potter RPG. I was a bit wary of the RPG aspect — don’t those involve math? And nerd-boys? I hate math. And nerd-boys. But — I love Harry Potter. It really sounded like an elaborate game of pretend — combined with booze. I love pretend! And booze.
So, I joined. And it’s been an exciting few weeks in the Hogwarts of the 1970s – my group and I have rescued each other from pegasi, played Quidditch, engaged in some pre-pubescent flirtation, and have gotten to know each other both in-game and out-. It’s been really – fantastic, actually. RPGs and fandom fulfill my need for inter-class contact described by Samuel R. Delaney in Times Square Red, Times Square Blue,* where he argues that contact and discussion based around shared interest is as important as contact based around shared social networks. It’s this interclass contact that makes city life tolerable, because it creates a multilayering of identities and communities. It diversifies who you have your leisure time with, and brings you into contact with people who you’d otherwise be less likely to meet.
This class bit is totally neat, and since I just finished Delaney’s book, I’m incredibly excited about it. But, what I’ve been finding really interesting – and what originally inspired this essay – was the absence of race, colonialism, and homophobia in our discussions of Hogwarts. I’m playing a biracial Hufflepuff with some queer leanings, and so far she hasn’t encountered racism of any sort, or brought up her mixed heritage. Neither have the other characters of color. One, a black boy from a Muggle family in America, has referred to race, but it’s more pithy than Panther. This, in a game set in the 1970s, when Loving v. Virginia* had just been battled out in the US. This absence of race as a lived experience, as something that deeply affects people’s lives, does not seem inauthentic, considering the source material. Rowling does not go into the dark parts of Wizarding history, the tensions of colonialism and post-colonialism facing modern-day Britain, or even the vagaries of race. How can she, and create a Hogwarts you’d want to go to? How can she, when she’s writing about the white characters in a world where whiteness means not having to worry about pesky things like colonization and racism? I realized, with a pang, that in that timeline, our Quidditch matches and balls coincided with Steve Biko’s death at the hands of apartheid police, that the colonized states across the world were finally, finally throwing off the bonds created by the First World. This sounds silly, I know – but seriously, how involved would Rowling’s wizards have been in world-changing events? Would there have been a call for divestment? Were there South African wizards who supported apartheid? Were there wizards and witches resisting the colonizers of Brazil? Should I be playing Zipporah as race-neutral or as black?
And then, the sexuality. I’ve been playing Zipporah as possibly bi. She’s been flirting with one of the other girls in-game, who’s expressed a vague interest back (this, when she’s not being impossibly Slytherin). There’s been no talk of this, and we’ve both been playing that bit of characterization through innuendo and implication (clearly, they’re like 12. The most they’re going to do is share books and possibly be BFF). But, unlike Dumbledore and JK Rowling’s “straight til proven otherwise” handling of sexuality, they’re open to the possibility of same-sex affection, a possibility unimpaired by such things as homophobia and the legal, social, and physical constraints facing queer women. It’s a beautiful world, where two maybe-bi tweens can jokingly ask each other to the Halloween ball, blithely ignoring things like race and social censure.* But seriously, what does it mean to play a character of ambiguous sexuality on the cusp of the British feminist movement? We’re playing in the 1970s. It will be another thirty years until the British government makes it illegal to engage in work-place discrimination based on sexuality. The Act of 1533, the law used to condemn Oscar Wilde for buggery, had just been taken off the books in 1967. We’re fantasizing on multiple levels.
This troubles me. It’s also kind of awesome. I had no idea immersing one’s self in a game could force me to think so critically about the assumptions underlying an author’s world-view. Is there a liberatory potential to imagining a world where race and colonialism are ignored, and sexuality is treated as a facet of one’s social experience versus a defining factor? I have no idea. For me, it’s silumultaneously relaxing and schizophrenic. Playing pretend in a world that’s class/color/sexuality-blind reinforces how much these things impact my daily life. It also, at times, makes me feel oddly inauthentic. It brings me out of the game, because I’m forced to go, “Oh, wait, when I was a middle schooler, being me didn’t feel this easy.” I’m not playing a good role because the parameters of the world in which we’re playing have declared some serious aspects of that role off-limits.
*Fine, so Delaney was talking about interclass contact specifically in regards to porn theaters. My life is just a lot less exciting than his.
*This is the case that made mixed race marriage legal on the federal level in the United States.
*SHE SAID NO! WTF.